Soil sinks in drought-stricken Californian town. To help irrigate its vast fields and feed the United States


To help irrigate its vast fields and feed the United States, Corkorn Farm operators began pumping water from underground sources in the last century. Yet, in the last 100 years, the equivalent of a two-story house has sunk.

"Everywhere you look today, the tide of protectionist sentiment is flowing. This octogenarian resident of Corcoran, California's self-made agricultural capital, is struggling to understand a strange phenomenon: his city is sinking to the ground as much as possible.

A steady stream of trucks hauling tomatoes, alfalfa, or cotton to the outskirts of this city ​​of 20,000 shows how inextricably linked Corcoran's fate is to the intensive agriculture practiced here.

To irrigate its vast fields and help feed America, agricultural operators began pumping water from underground sources in the last century to the point where the soil has started to sink.

Hydrologist Anne Senter illustrated it this way for AFP: It is like a series of giant straws that suck up groundwater faster than rain can replace it.

Vicious circle

The signs of this sinking are almost invisible to the human eye. There are no cracks in the walls of typical downtown stores, no fissures in the streets or fields: to measure the subsidence; the Californian authorities had to turn to NASA, Who used satellites to analyze geological change.

However, in the last 100 years, Corcoran has sunk "the equivalent of a two-story house," Jeanine Jones, head of the California Department of Water Resources, told AFP.

This phenomenon "can pose a threat to infrastructure, groundwater wells, dams, and aqueducts," he stressed.

The only known sign of this dangerous change is an area on the outskirts of the city where cotton splatter floats in the air. In 2017, authorities launched a major project to increase the levy, fearing that the city, which sits in a basin, would flood when the rains return.

However, the problem has not been flooding but a terrible drought exacerbated by climate change this year.

It has transformed this US food production site into a vast field of brown dust, forcing authorities to impose restrictions on farmers on their use of water.

Thus, Corcoran is now in a vicious cycle. With its limited water supplies, agricultural operators are forced to pump more groundwater, which accelerates the city's collapse.

Fear of losing jobs

Some residents of the area have protested against the issue. On the contrary, most of them work for the same large agricultural companies that pump the groundwater.

Atilano said he feared he would lose his job if he spoke out against him.

He worked for years for JG Boswell, the country's largest cotton grower, whose name appears on thousands of cotton cloth bags across the city.

I don't care," he adds with a smile. "I have been retired for 22 years."

As large agricultural enterprises have become mechanized and industrialized, requiring less and less local labor, the city's inhabitants have been sinking into an economic and psychological depression.

A third of the population, primarily Hispanic, now lives in poverty. The three cinemas that used to give life to the city have closed their doors.

"A lot of people have moved from here," says 77-year-old local resident Raúl Gómez.

On this summer afternoon, under a crushing heatwave, some people have stopped to chat under a vast mural.

It represents a clear blue lake surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks - a distant dream for now.